Lectionary Commentaries for January 19, 2014
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:29-42

Richard Swanson

So, Jesus is the Lamb of God. What does this mean?

So, this lamb of God takes away the sin of the cosmos. What does that mean?

The history of interpretation provides a squad of confident answers to these little questions. The problem is, the answers aren’t persuasive. This is a problem.

For one thing, what is a “lamb of God?” That should be simple, I suppose, but it’s not. Does the lamb belong to God, or come from God, or possess some sort of godly status? All of those are possible readings of the Greek. If the lamb belongs to God, then what is its purpose? Is it one of the larger flock? John the Baptist seems to argue against such a reading.

Is it God’s Passover lamb? The storyteller does link Jesus’ death with the slaughter of the Passover lambs, but why would God need a Passover lamb? The rabbis imagine that God joins in the observance of the religious rhythm of the world, so maybe God eats Passover, too. But if Jesus is God’s Passover lamb, that requires us to imagine God roasting and eating a human being. Even figuratively, this is a problem. 

Of course, the business of taking away sin might simplify things. Or not. Lambs are part of the sacrificial system, but not as “sin offerings.” Lambs are generally mentioned as a “whole burnt offering” that is distinguished from the sin offering. And the times when lambs ARE mentioned as sin offerings, they are females a year old, which puts them on the borderline between lamb and sheep. And they are female.

Male goats are mentioned, but male lambs seem to be left out, at least where “sin offerings” are concerned. So maybe the storyteller doesn’t know this? Or maybe John is saying that Jesus is the female lamb of God. And maybe, since it’s just symbolic, gender doesn’t matter? Or maybe gender does indeed matter and John is cross-identifying Jesus? Or maybe there is sacrificial practice that we just don’t know about? 

All of these are real possibilities, but not one is altogether satisfying. And we have not yet considered the matter of taking away the sin of the cosmos by means of any creature, adult or juvenile, ungulate or human. How would that work? Maybe it’s all figurative, or mystical, or spiritual, or something. Still not satisfying, if only because the whole notion of the efficacy of blood sacrifice is no longer knit into the fabric of most people’s universe.   

To my eye, the most interesting interpretive line ties the scene to another time a human being was linked to a sheep, in Genesis 22. Isaac notices the fire and the knife, but asks about the lamb. The word he uses (when he speaks Greek in the Septuagint) is different: probaton instead of amnos (and it’s even more complicated in Hebrew, where the word is better translated as “sheep” since it implies nothing about age, indicating only that the animal is one of the flock), and there is no suggestion that the offering God commanded Abraham to perform had anything to do with taking away sin, but when Abraham answers he says, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Everett Fox notes that a translator might choose to use a dash rather than a comma at this point (“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering — my son”) to capture in English the irony of the Hebrew sentence.1

What matters, I think, is that the phrase “lamb of God” does not point easily and simply to a single symbolic referent. Rather, it weaves this chance encounter with Jesus into the whole variegated tapestry of Jewish Scripture. 

The lamb is eaten, even as Jesus indicates in John that gnawing on his corpse is required in order to have life (John 6:54, where the verb that the NRSV timidly translates as “eat” is trogo, which means animalistic gnawing). 

The lamb is burned as a whole burnt offering, not for sin but simply for extravagant sacrifice, which puts the one who offers the sacrifice (of the future of his flock) in the position of having to rely completely on God. 

The lamb is the long-awaited son, provided by God as part of a promise long-delayed, who walks with his father, the two of them together, on the way to the slaughter of the son and of the promise.

I think it matters that this links Jesus somehow to the sin of the cosmos. Even this linkage is not simple, no matter what millennia of atonement theories might suggest. For one thing, Jesus does not exactly “take away” the sin of the world, at least not in Greek. He lifts it up. Perhaps John means to suggest that, by lifting it up, he takes it away. This is possible. But it is also possible that by lifting it up he makes it visible so everyone can see it easily.

If this is what John means, he is linking this quick account of a random encounter to the story of the lifting up of the image of the fiery serpent in Numbers 21:9. When people bitten by poisonous snakes looked at the image, lifted up and easy to see, they were healed. John makes this linkage explicitly in chapter 3. Perhaps the storyteller expects the audience to see the same picture. 

Or maybe the storyteller wants the audience to hear in airo, the verb for “lifting up,” the sense of emphasizing and making evident, even exaggerating. Such a reading would indicate that the lamb of God, in being thrown into the fiery torture of a Roman crucifixion, makes unmistakable the depth of human violence and sin. This would fit with Nils Dahl’s argument, now decades old, that the base story in Scripture (especially for Christians, but also for Jews) is the story of God’s endangered promises.2

This brings together many of the possibilities suggested by this odd little scene, and links the Jesus story tightly to the story of the binding of Isaac. Just as God’s promise of descendents and a future is brought into peril by God’s command to sacrifice the only son of Sarah and Abraham, so also God’s promise of the rectification of the world is called into question by the story of a messiah crucified by Rome. (As Paul points out to the Corinthians, the notion of a crucified messiah is either scandalous or moronic. Take your pick.)

Perhaps Roman sinfulness is simply too strong for God’s promises to be effective. This is a disturbing reflection, but it is one that people in every generation and every community have to consider. Invariably fatal diseases are still invariably fatal, and no amount of religious fervor changes that. Brutal dictators still gas and torture their own people, and no proclamation of the reign of God even slows them down. Pointless pain is still pointless even when people find a way to smile bravely as they ask for the morphine. 

Perhaps one of our required reflections, we who confess that God’s messiah has come to a weary world “in sin and error pining,” must be on the adamant stubbornness of the pain of the world. This, also, is what a “theology of the cross” must meditate on.

Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.  


1 Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995.), 94n8.

2 See Nils Dahl, “The Crucified Messiah and the Endangered Promises,” in Jesus the Christ: Historical Origins of Christological Doctrine (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7

Amy G. Oden

As always, it’s important here to state the big story at work in Isaiah in order to grasp the power of Isaiah’s proclamation in chapter 49.

God’s people have been defeated, their temple destroyed. They are taken in chains to Babylon, alienated from their land and their God. This exile is a crisis of identity and faith. Are they still God’s people? How can they worship in this foreign land?


Into this crisis, Isaiah speaks a word of hope in these chapters. God will send a servant who will do justice. Indeed, it appears that much of second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) addresses the return of the Israelites to their homeland and the promise of a restored temple and nation. The disorientation of exile is replaced by a new orientation that is more than just returning to the way things were before exile. God has something much more in mind.


Isaiah shouts this news from the rooftops. If the first verse were an online blog, it would be in all caps. He has a message not for Israel alone, but for the whole world, even “you peoples far away” (verse 1). And this message is from God: God has raised up a servant, one hidden and unknown, a nobody. God has made this servant the instrument of God’s glory (verse 3).


From Rahab to David to Mary, the story of God’s people is full of unlikely servants raised up by God. This is a recurrent theme in scripture, and we want to notice it here. The servant is called while still in the womb, hidden and invisible. The Lord hides the servant “in the shadow of his hand” and “in his quiver” (verse 2).


In this case, the servant, too, is hidden even from himself as an agent of God. The servant stands disbelieving in the face of God’s call, blinded by self-condemnation to God’s purposes. He confesses a life “labored in vain,” spent “for nothing and vanity” (verse 4).


God acknowledges as much in verse 7, agreeing that this servant is “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers.” This servant, first invisible and then despised, will nevertheless be recognized by the powerful, by kings and princes, because the Lord, “the Holy One of Israel, has chosen you” (verse 7). For the preacher this is a great opportunity to talk about how God calls unlikely servants and, perhaps more importantly, how often those servants do not recognize themselves as such.


God has a direction this story is going, insistently toward the restoration of Jacob, “the survivors of Israel” (verse 6). The decades of exile produced a diaspora with tribes scattered from Mesopotamia to Egypt, trying to scratch out a life. God’s purpose is to “raise up the tribes of Jacob” (verse 6), “that Israel might be gathered to him” (verse 5). God intends for Israel to be restored as a people with one another and with God. Their exile is not the end of the story.


We can imagine this proclamation falling on the ears of Israel with a sigh of relief. And if this passage was only about restoring Israel, that would be impressive enough within the dramatic narrative of Babylonian exile. But wait, there’s more! God doesn’t get stuck there.


This passage moves from the very particular and powerful deliverance of Israel to an even larger mission. In an astonishing phrase God says that this restoration of Israel is “too light a thing” (verse 6) in and of itself. God’s people do not exist for themselves alone, nor is their restoration an end in itself.


God gathers God’s people into God’s life for one purpose: the salvation of the world. God charges Israel, God’s servant, to be “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (verse 6). God takes seriously the particular historical moment of Israel in exile and God doesn’t get stuck in that particular historical moment. Just as exile isn’t the end of the story, neither is restoration.


The long arc of God’s story points toward the restoration of all creation. “The Holy One, who has chosen you” (v. 7) calls Israel to inhabit not only its homeland, but its identity as God’s blessing for the world.


God doesn’t get stuck in the tidy resolutions to our crises that we think end the story. We often believe that if things turn out okay, the story is over. If the church makes budget, then “whew, thank God, that was close!” If we get through a health scare, we are humbled and grateful.


Yet God is not done. These so-called endings are beginnings, each a new horizon of possibility. Not for ourselves alone, but for the world God loves.


Restoration of individuals, or churches, or even of an entire people, is never only about that. God’s healing work moves outward, always expanding toward eschatological fulfillment, “that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (verse 6). God’s story is always bigger than ours, holding our stories within God’s life and weaving them into the wide-open future.


Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11

James Howell

Most of us can read Psalm 40 and admire its words, the depth of thought and faith conveyed in its phrases. 

But who among us can with any candor say “I waited patiently for the Lord”? When did I ever wait for anything at all without frustration or anxiety?

We wait in traffic, wait for things to get better, or wait in the waiting room. We are no good at waiting. We want to get moving, we can’t bear wasting time, and the clock is ticking while we just don’t know what will unfold next. Patience is listed by Paul as a “fruit of the Spirit,” which it must be for somebody, somewhere, but not me, or at least not yet. I can’t muster it; maybe a miracle will dawn.

This Psalm isn’t a prayer so much as a report on a prayer. In Bible times, if you were under duress, you would pray and ask others to pray — and then later you would share what that was like, what transpired, and what God had done. If God does something good for us, can we find the words to share? This might be of help to someone else struggling, and might even make us more solid in our sense of God’s goodness. The good that God does isn’t precisely what we might have asked for, but that is no barrier to testimony.

Psalm 40 sounds notes in its melody that harmonize with so many tunes in Scripture.

  • “Here I am” — the words Isaiah used to reply affirmatively to God’s call (Isaiah 6).
  • “Here I am” — the same words a later follower of Isaiah used to depict the way God is there for us but we don’t go looking for God: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I said ‘Here I am’ to a nation that did not call on my name” (Isaiah 65).
  • Psalm 40’s image of God’s law not being something out there we try to absorb and translate into action, but it is actually inscribed directly onto the inner heart: Jeremiah longed for such a day (Jeremiah 31).

In fact, this Psalm must have been a favorite of the prophets, with the talk of God not wanting burnt offerings. Actually, God might wind up with even more burnt offerings and more abundant sacrifices if the Psalm’s objective could be won: what God wants is “an open ear,” and a “delight” in doing God’s will.

The Hebrew for this “open ear” means literally “ears you have dug out for me,” as if our ears are jammed with gunk and wax, and only if God can bore it all out can we actually hear God! What fills our ears so we cannot hear God? And is the doing of God’s will a chore? A duty? Or is it a delight? Young lovers take great delight in doing any little favor for the beloved; can we be as eager and gleeful to do favors for God?

Verse 4 poses some intriguing translation challenges. The NRSV offers us, “Happy are those who make the Lord their trust” — an understandable but problematical shift from the RSV, “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust.” The Psalmist would quickly grant us that “man” is embarrassingly restrictive, and that women or children also are blessed when the Lord is trusted. We also see a shift in number: “those” versus “the one.” Again, the Psalmist expected many readers, but yet there is a deeply personal, occasionally lonely burden on the single individual to make this choice of trust — although doing it together makes it easier, and more sustainable.

But is “Happy” much like “Blessed”? The Hebrew ‘ashre doesn’t mean “happy” the way modern people conceive of it — feeling good, enjoying things, smiles and fun chums around. The word ‘ashre implies a state of the soul, a gift only God can bestow, something steady, not a fleeting emotion or anything that can be ruined by circumstance. If we call this “happiness,” then we are rather wonderfully redefining happiness.

The happy or blessed one “makes the Lord his trust” — and history has taught us that those who trust in the Lord are not comfortable or sheltered from difficulty, but may well find themselves in difficulty, and even in agony because trusting God means we serve God courageously in a world that is not in sync with God. This blessedness/happiness is a puzzle to those on the outside, but the calming heartbeat for those who’ve known this trust.

And, whether we like it or not, this brand of happiness/blessedness has an eschatological dimension. The last verse of our lection prays to the Lord, “Let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” It is God’s steadfastness, God’s faithfulness, that will endure and win the day; if we triumph it is God doing so vicariously through us. And the “forever” the Psalmist had in mind was probably just in this world — for a very long time here in my earthly life.

But we know something about eternity, about the time beyond that measured by time. The happiness/blessedness we crave may be glimpsed here and there, or enjoyed for a while, but then not… and yet we believe that if we trust the Lord, if we believe and adhere to God, after this world is no more, after God has brought all things to consummation, there were be a happiness exponentially more giddy than even the ultimate happiness the world seduces us with. This relationship with God, begun now, known through a glass darkly, will finally be reality, and all will be joy.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Mary Hinkle Shore

As he opens his letters, Paul commonly names others alongside himself.

Among the undisputed letters of Paul, only Romans does not have a co-author or other senders named. 1 Corinthians begins by naming Paul and Sosthenes as those from whom the letters comes. The only other reference to a Sosthenes in the New Testament is in Acts 18:12-17, where a Jewish leader by that name in Corinth is beaten by a mob in front of the proconsul, Gallio.


There is no evidence one way or the other regarding whether the name, when it appears in Acts, refers to the same person Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians. Even though we do not know the precise identity of Paul’s co-author, it is nonetheless meaningful that he names one. Paul’s letters are community documents, both in their composition and in their reception.  


Thanksgiving sections in Paul’s letters usually introduce themes that will appear later, and this is certainly true of the thanksgiving from 1 Corinthians. Paul thanks God that the Corinthians “have been enriched” in Christ. He mentions specifically speech and knowledge among the Corinthians’ spiritual gifts. From the rest of the letter, we know that the so-called riches of speaking in tongues and having knowledge are among the ways that the Corinthians Christians are dividing themselves up, with some claiming superiority over others.


In the context of a community where spiritual gifts have become a way to claim rank and status over others, Paul begins his letter by framing those gifts as part of God’s work in Christ. A thanksgiving is different from a commendation or even a complimentary greeting to those receiving the letter. A thanksgiving is a prayer, and as such, it allows Paul to give credit where credit is due.


First, Paul thanks God for the Corinthians because God has given grace to them in Christ Jesus. At the end of the thanksgiving, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God, who is faithful, has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. In between, every verse of the thanksgiving mentions Christ.


The result is a more subtle form of the questions Paul will ask the Corinthians later, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boastas if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). God is the source of their life together and the gifts manifested there and all of it draws them more deeply into fellowship with Christ.


Paul’s thanksgiving also corrects any mistaken impression that the Corinthians have attained the fullness of life in Christ. In the thanksgiving, Paul mentions that the Corinthians are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ and that there is a “day of the Lord” yet in the future. The effect is to relativize the Corinthians’s present experience, however remarkably spiritual it may be for at least some of them.


The body of the letter, with all its reports of conflict and claims to superiority over brothers and sisters in Christ, will confirm that there is still some distance between the state of the Corinthians and God’s intention for them. However much they may aspire to it, they do not yet see the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ “face to face” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).


It is impossible to come away from this text with the impression of Christian life as an individualized spiritual journey. Paul gives thanks for God’s gifts to the Corinthians as a group and names their community with Christ as the defining characteristic of their life together. What would it be like for those listening to a sermon on this text to understand themselves not so much as blessed individuals but as part of a community that has received gifts of God’s grace?


A sermon on this text could take the form of a thanksgiving to God for the community to which the preacher speaks. Paul certainly knew the Corinthian community was not perfect; in fact, it is as fractious and fractured as any community to which he writes. Yet he finds much to thank God for as he begins a letter to them. As a preacher, what would you thank God for about the people to whom you preach? What might their experience as a community be if they could hear you thanking God for them and their gifts?


Sometimes churches can be a little self-impressed. Our own virtues captivate us: we are friendly, or generous, or working for justice, or impeccable in our attention to the details of worship. Like the Corinthians, we are indeed “enriched” and, let’s face it, impressed by it. Writing to such a community, Paul thanks God first of all for the grace given to these people in Christ Jesus. Paul will soon introduce the reversal implicit in that grace when he says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).


What does it mean to give thanks for the grace of the Crucified One among a people? At least part of what it means is that God’s power in that particular place is manifest in ways beyond the things people like best about themselves, perhaps even in weakness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25 and other occurrences of “weakness” in the Corinthian letters). Without valorizing failure, a sermon on this text might call to mind ways that God is at work in unexpected, often unvalued people and places among us.